by Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in Eventing USA, February 2010

The field of sport psychology is thought of in a variety of ways by the general public. One commonly held idea is that it assists those who “Strive for Excellence”. This attracts people who look high and low for any advantage or new skill to help them succeed. There is also the opinion that sport psychology means “Consistent Preparation/Consistent Performance” which highlights all of the ways to ready yourself for riding in order to perform well. In addition, and perhaps most often referred to, is the “Help, I Have a Problem!” model that consultants deal with frequently. This involves using sport psychology techniques with a rider to help them fix a specific problem.

Is it correct that sport psychology can help you accomplish all of the above? Yes! For the current column, we focus on the last approach and look at how you can use sport psychology tools to help you solve some common riding challenges. From here forward these ‘problems’ will be referred to as ‘challenges’. You see, a ‘problem’ is static and unchangeable; a ‘challenge’ contains an implied solution.

In riding, you and your horse are a team. When you feel that challenges interfere with optimal performance, the reasons behind them can be multi-faceted. Now, it goes without saying that you and your horse’s mental and physical health, strength, training, etc. need to be addressed, as solutions often exist within all of those areas. Adopting a solution-oriented approach where you explore a variety of ideas to help you overcome your challenges is ideal. In this article we focus on the mental strengths and tools the rider can utilize to work through these sometimes complicated issues.

Challenge: Rider (and Therefore Horse) Extremely Nervous/Tense/Fearful at Shows

Everything was going so well at home, but you got to the show on Thursday, got on to school your horse, and the wheels came off the wagon. Why? Well, there may be many reasons, and you might require help in order to figure it out. In the interests of this article, however, we will simply accept this somewhat unpleasant state of affairs and examine some solutions.

1.     Dress Rehearsal: When you observe a drastic difference between your performances at home and at an event, then you know that the show environment is creating a fight-or-flight response in your nervous system. Preventative medicine can be best for this challenge. In order to normalize the experience it is helpful to run through the show scenario as thoroughly as possible at home. Not only can it be helpful to actually wear your show clothes, but doing things like warming-up in one area, and then riding a course or test in another ring can make a big difference. This will make the process more familiar and natural for you, enabling you to be able to focus on the process of riding well once you get to the event.

2.     Manage Your Energy: Be sure to have tools in mind that you can use to adjust (and lower) your energy level. It is helpful to use things like breathing techniques that can help you put your mind and body in sync and help you feel like you are in control of the situation. You may also use: music; scanning your body for tension, then shaking and releasing the muscle groups that feel tight; keep your physical energy even by eating small amounts often throughout the day; and taking time to sit down, rest and relax away from the barn or ring to gather yourself in a peaceful setting.
“The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.” – Theodore Rubin

Challenge: “All-or-Nothing” Thinking


There are riders who feel like complete failures as the result of any mistake – however large or small. Have you ever felt that way yourself? This constant critical voice can create quite a roller-coaster for your confidence, not to mention how it can damage your motivation (and enjoyment!).

  1. Debrief Progress First: Reflect on progress with your performance goals (e.g. kept counting each step in stadium round), immediately after each ride as a way of guiding your debriefing process. Instead of focusing on mistakes in the ride (e.g. drive by at the corner) use your mental strength to pick out two or three parts that were successful. Particularly when they are things that you set as goals before you your ride, that process will help you stay committed to valuing progress and effort. In addition, when that routine becomes habitual you will enter the arena, ring or start box with an eye on remembering success (instead of wondering where the ‘problem’ will crop up).
  1. Boundaries for Negative Emotions: Of course it is unrealistic to think that you will not feel upset or frustrated after a mistake. What is realistic is to set up specific parameters for how, when and where you are allowed to engage in those negative emotions. By setting a time limit (e.g. two minutes), or a physical boundary (e.g. by the time I have walked back to the barn to get off) you can acknowledge the upset and then make a conscious plan to switch gears. You are allowing the negative feelings to be experienced, but then choosing to move forward and focus on solutions.


Challenge: Returning After a Fall or Injury


In every discipline of riding, falling off is a part of life. Sometimes you land on your feet and hop back on (and smile at your good fortune), but sometimes injuries occur that are both physical and/or mental. In addition, competing with or recovering from injuries that are unrelated to riding can greatly impact your ability to be confident and assertive on your horse.

  1. Be Good to Yourself: When returning to the saddle after a fall or injury it is important to take more care and be gentle with yourself. Be patient as you do regular tasks around the barn, tack up or get on – they may all take more time and that is OK! Being kind to yourself is a part of accepting the reality that you feel differently than you did before the injury or fall. Remember that all of your talents, skills and strengths are still within you; they may just need a little extra time to come back on-line.
  1. Adjust Goals and Expectations: It is extremely important to sit down and adjust your goals in a calm and realistic way before you return to the saddle. Your competition schedule, your training and outcome goals will all be naturally affected by your physical and mental health. Depending on the severity of your injury, length of your rehab or time off, the adjustments required will vary in scope. Get help with this process from family, trainer, or friends. Adopting a modified timeline and new goal strategies will take off a lot of pressure, and thus give you the flexibility to listen to your body and comfort level as you return to riding.


“The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.” – John Foster Dulles

Challenge: Stopping

Your horse occasionally chooses extremely inopportune times to say “No thank you, the ground is my friend; I’m not leaving it right now.” This seems to be another simple fact of the sport of jumping horses over obstacles – sometimes they won’t. However, particular stops or patterns of stopping can begin to leave footprints in your mind that interfere with your ability to ride effectively.

  1. Focus on Things in Your Control: Ultimately whether your horse lofts him or herself into the air over a pile of lumber is out of your control. Focusing on that reality can cause stress and anxiety that does not help you do your job: creating the best opportunity for them to jump the jump. You control your attitude, your ability to problem solve, and your own physical performance. Keep your mind squarely on those factors and you will create the best environment for your horse to do his job.
  1. Use Process Goals: Process goals focus on position, strategy, or the technical aspect of a task to perform an entire skill (like jumping a trakehner) successfully. For example, if your eye drops to the ground beneath the airy vertical, causing your horse to lose his nerve, a process goal would be getting your eye up on a specific focal point three strides out from the jump.

The Optimal Idea

How you think about a problem is more important than the problem itself – so always think positively.” This quote by Norman Vincent Peale is a wonderful way to frame the ‘problem’ scenario, and it states the utmost import of maintaining a ‘can-do’ attitude no matter what the challenge. When you add that attitude to a mental toolbox full of strategies to utilize, there is no mountain you can’t climb.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a Mental Skills Coach who specializes in working with equestrian athletes. Her coaching sessions teach mental strategies for optimal sport performance and help riders develop personalized preparation routines. Tonya’s clients have attained competitive success at every level, including national titles and awards. She has presented at both the USEA and USDF national conventions. Tonya has a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University. She conducts “Mental Skills for Riders” clinics throughout the country as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Phone: 510.418.3664.